Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Hollow Crown: Richard II

The BBC has long been expert in adapting Shakespeare's stage plays to the screen. Every great Shakespearean actor since the advent of television has made an appearance in these adaptations: Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, John Gielgud, Anthony Hopkins, Patrick Stewart, Laurence Olivier, and countless other esteemed performers. The latest entry in this venerable tradition is The Hollow Crown, an adaptation of the Bard's second tetralogy: Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV, and Henry V. These closely connected history plays cover the--sometimes attenuated--reigns of these eponymous English kings: "how some have been deposed; some slain in war, some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed; some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd; all murder'd".

The first in the series, Richard II, can be summarized as the downfall of a young, wastrel monarch, Richard, and the rise of Henry Bolingbroke, beloved of the people. Given the author of this play, you are right to assume that there are endless layers of complexity to this history tale. In The Hollow Crown, Richard is played by Ben Wishaw, an actor that 007 fans will likely recognize from his role as Q in Skyfall (2012). Wishaw's performance as the doomed king is extraordinarily nuanced, as he alternates between imperious condescension and near-lunatic self-pity.

One of the earliest standout scenes in the adaptation is Richard's combative conversation with John of Gaunt, played by the illustrious Patrick Stewart. Gaunt is ill to the point of death in this scene, and is essentially using his poor health as an excuse to clear his conscience and tell the young king what he really thinks of him. Patrick Stewart is more than twice Ben Wishaw's age and is playing the part of a dying man, yet his repudiation of the young monarch is so forceful, so powerfully conveyed, that I actually felt concern for the wilting king. (Stewart has such gravitas that I'm convinced he could have done justice to any of the roles in this film. Yes, the queen included.)

Bolingbroke, the man that will inevitably take Richard's place on the throne, is a very different type of adversary. He isn't quite the ambitious lord that Richard believes him to be, but rather a man just ambitious enough to allow the forces of history to make him king. Remember, this is Shakespeare we're talking about, so the question of a character's motivation is never a simple thing. Bolingbroke is played by Rory Kinnear, also an alumnus of the 007 series. His performance is far less demanding than that of Richard, the hysteric, but he does a fine job of conveying his character's conflicted loyalties, as well as hinting at his dawning realization: "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."

Richard II is, admittedly, a fairly grim affair. Apart from the king's absurdist self-pity, there is little in the way of humor. But, the following Henry IV plays feature one of Shakespeare's most beloved creations: the corpulent, riotous, corrupter of youth, Sir John Falstaff.